Julia Child’s Deconstructed Thanksgiving

If you like dark meat, this will be the only turkey recipe you will ever make from this point forward. Removing the thighbones, then trussing the thighs up using skewers and string, makes the dark meat the absolute best part of the entire evening. This was my second year in a row making Julia Child’s Thanksgiving. Last year I posted the turkey/stuffing combination, and this year I also wanted to include the gravy recipe; the 3 recipes go perfectly together. This post is intended to ease the juggling between the three recipes; integrating the timing of each step was the biggest challenge.

Traditional Thanksgiving meal

Traditional Thanksgiving meal

By separating the turkey into three major pieces, some of the most fundamental Thanksgiving issues are solved. (1) Getting the dark meat cooked properly without overcooking the white meat. (2) getting real turkey drippings into the stuffing. As a bonus, this method cooks the turkey in about half the time, freeing up my oven to cook rolls, pies, and gravy the rest of the day. There are a few issues (discussed below), but overall this technique provides a delicious turkey. It was the best dark meat I’ve ever eaten. Chris Kimball agrees, saying “this is now my new, absolute favorite.” 4-1/2 stars. I hope you all had a delicious Thanksgiving.

Most beautiful dark meat ever

Most beautiful dark meat ever

Start the evening before Thanksgiving, taking care of most of the prep work in about 1-1/2 hours. Cut the turkey into three major parts, (1) breast/wings, then (2) cut off each leg/thigh quarter. At first, I misread the instructions and started to cut off just the leg; not the entire leg quarter (i.e. including the thigh), but realized my mistake before I did any damage beyond the skin. The recipe only brines the breast/wings. It salts/seasons the leg quarters separately.

Shopping List for Turkey, Stuffing and Gravy:

  • Turkey (between 1-1/2 and 2 pounds per person)
  • 24-ounce loaf of hearty white sandwich bread (e.g. Arnold’s or Pepperidge Farms)
  • Fresh sage (enough for 2-1/2 tablespoons)
  • 5 onions
  • 7 celery ribs
  • 1 carrot
  • 6 unpeeled garlic cloves
  • 6 sprigs fresh thyme
  • 1 cup dried cranberries (about 4-ounces)
  • 4 large eggs
  • 3 ½ cups chicken broth (28 0unces)
  • 2 cups dry white wine (2/3-rds bottle)
  • Wooden skewers

Issues / Comments:

  1. Cutting off leg quarters, not just legs. As I mentioned above, I almost cut off just the legs in step 2. The recipe calls for me to remove the “leg quarter”.
  2. Because the wings overhanged my 12″ skillet, the juices dripped down to the oven floor and filled the house with smoke. My solution is that I recommend putting a foil-lined baking sheet below the skillet to catch the juices. If it starts to smoke you can just swap it out for new foil. Fortunately, my guests had not yet arrived.
  3. I was surprised that it took me a full hour to deconstruct and prepare the turkey, most of the time was separating the leg quarters. The back was pretty easy to remove using kitchen shears.
  4. The recipe calls for a 12-to-15-pound turkey. I bought a 19-pounder because of the number of guests, but my turkey took double the time to cook than stated in the recipe. In the end, we ate an hour late, but only because I cut the resting time down (more than I should have).
  5. If your turkey weighs more than 17-pounds you will have to remove the stuffing before the turkey has finished cooking,
  6. While Chris Kimball tries to have the white and dark meat ready at the same time, it was not the case. The dark meat took longer, but that gave the breast an extra 10-to-15 minutes to rest. The beautiful thing about this recipe is that I was able to remove the white meat while the dark meat came up to temperature.

Rating: 4-1/2 star.
Cost: $25.  ($10 of which was by 21-lb turkey; which was subsidized by my supermarket)
How much work? Medium/High.
How big of a mess?  Medium/High.
Start time 12 Noon. Dinner time 5 PM.

The original Cook’s Illustrated recipe is here.  The recipe as I cooked it for this Thanksgiving is as follows:

The Evening Before Thanksgiving:
1 Turkey
1 teaspoon minced fresh sage (remaining 2 tablespoons will be for tomorrow)
Salt and pepper
Wooden skewers
1-1/2 pounds hearty white sandwich bread (e.g. Arnold’s or Pepperidge Farms)

  1. Expect to spend 1-1/2 hours this evening on preparations. Mince enough fresh sage to yield 1 teaspoon and set aside until you are ready to season/truss the thigh in Step 5.
  2. Remove turkey from packaging, and remove the giblets and neck (from inside the body cavity). Reserve in a gallon-sized plastic bag (or in a large Dutch oven), which will be used tomorrow along with back and thigh bones to make the gravy.
  3. Put turkey breast-side-up on your largest cutting board. Tuck the wing back just to get it out-of-the-way. Working on one leg quarter at a time; remove the thighs/legs (the entire leg quarter in one piece). Cut through the skin around the quarters where it attaches to breast; which will allow you to better see the actual meat. From the front of the turkey (near the wings), use a boning knife to cut deeply along the bone, freeing the thigh meat; until your knife reaches the hip bone. Bend the entire leg quarter back so that the bone pops out of the hip socket, then you can continue to cut the meat away and remove entire quarter.
  4. To de-bone the thigh (just the thigh, not the drumstick), use the tip of your boning knife to cut along the length of the thigh; there is usually a thin line of fat that will show you where the bone is. Then cut around the tip of the bone and work your knife underneath the bone to expose the joint between thigh and leg. Cut through the cartilage and remove thighbone; adding bones to your bag/pot for the gravy. Repeat to remove the second leg quarter.
  5. Rub interior of each thigh with ½ teaspoon sage, ½ teaspoon salt, and ¼ teaspoon pepper.
  6. Poke 3 skewers through skin/meat to close up the thigh where your removed the thigh bone. Wrap some kitchen twine around the wooden skewers to tightly close the thigh into a nice, round piece of boneless meat. Set on a large plate, cover, and refrigerate for 6 to 12 hours until ready to cook.
  7. Trim away and discard any excess skin from around the neck. Trim away and discard any large globs of fat from the skin.
  8. To remove the back bone from the breast, flip the turkey over breast-side-down. Use kitchen shears to cut through ribs (following vertical line of fat where breast meets back) until you can’t cut anymore. You’ve reach the bone near the wing joint. Repeat on other side of backbone.
  9. Use a little force to bend the back-section away from the breast, and the shoulder joint should pop out of the socket. Cut between the bonds to separate the back from the breast, and add the back to the bag/pot for making gravy.
  10. Dissolve 3/4-cup salt into 6 quarts of cold water in a large container (I used my 8-quart stock pot; so reduced to 1/2 cup salt and 4 quarts of cold water). Submerge breast in brine, cover and refrigerate for 6 to 12 hours until ready to cook. Refrigerate reserved bones.
  11. Cut bread into 1/2-inch cubes (including the crust). Spread on-top 2 rimmed baking sheets and bake at 300-degrees from 30 to 40 minutes until it becomes dry and lightly browned. Stir a few times during baking and empty into the largest bowl you own. Set aside until Thanksgiving day.
  12. While the bread drying out is in the oven, you will have time to pre-mix your pumpkin pie filling. If you are going to make dinner rolls or bread, then mix your biga.

Thanksgiving Day:

Stuffing Ingredients:
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons minced fresh sage
3 onions, chopped fine
6 celery ribs, minced
1 cup dried cranberries
4 large eggs, beaten

Gravy Ingredients:
2 onions, chopped coarse
1 carrot, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces
1 celery rib, cut into 1-inch pieces
6 garlic cloves, unpeeled
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
3-1/2 cups chicken broth
3 cups water
2 cups dry white wine
6 sprigs fresh thyme

  1. At 8AM. If you are making dinner rolls or bread, start the dough early in the morning. The dough needs time to rise, and you need time to bake the bread without conflicting with your turkey roasting schedule. Also, I had extra rolls to serve hot around lunchtime.
  2. At 11AM: If you want your pumpkin pie shortly after dinner, this is your last free oven time to bake it. It is also possible to put it into the oven around 4:30PM (while the turkey rests); but the pie won’t be cool enough to eat until about 7:30PM.
  3. At 12 NOON: Set two over racks to the lowest and second lowest positions; pre-heat to 450-degrees. Put reserved turkey bones, onions, carrot, celery, and garlic in large roasting pan. Drizzle with 1 tablespoon vegetable oil and toss to combine. Roast, stirring occasionally, for 40 to 50 minutes until everything becomes well browned.
  4. At 12:30PM: Remove the breast from brine and pat dry using paper towels (leaving the leg quarters in refrigerator for now). Tuck the wings behind back. Finely chop 3 onions. Melt butter in 12″ non-stick oven-safe skillet over medium burner. Add chopped onions and cook for 10 to 12 minutes, stirring occasionally, until they have softened and are just beginning to brown
  5. Meanwhile, mince 2 tablespoons of fresh sage and 6 celery ribs. Add minced celery and sage to skillet, plus 1-1/2 teaspoons pepper. Continue to cook for 3 to 5 minutes until celery is softened. It is essential that the vegetables have time to dry out in the skillet or your stuffing will turn to mush. Empty vegetables into your large bowl with the bread cubes. Set aside until Step 9.
  6. AT 1PM: Transfer your gravy ingredients from the roasting pan to a large Dutch oven and set aside until Step 8.
  7. Reduce oven temperature to 425-degrees. Use paper towels to wipe out non-stick skillet. Brush surface of breast with 2 teaspoons vegetable oil and set turkey breast with the skin-side-down into skillet. Roast at 425-degrees for 35 minutes; placing a foil-lined baking sheet on the rack below turkey to catch any drippings.
  8. For the gravy, add 3-1/2 cups chicken broth, 3 cups water, 2 cups white wine and the 6 sprigs fresh thyme to the pot with the roasted turkey/vegetables from Step 6. Bring up to boil over high burner, then reduce to low and simmer for 1-1/2 hours, until it is reduced by half.
  9. At 1:30PM. Add 1 cup cranberries and 4 beaten eggs to bread mixture and toss to combine (mixture will be dry). Empty stuffing to 16″x13″ roasting pan, then use a rubber spatula to form an even 12″x10″ rectangle. The turkey will be set on-top of stuffing to protect it and prevent it from burning.
  10. Remove the breast from the oven and use paper towels to pat up the hot juices from the top of the breast. Use wads to paper towels to flip over and set over two-thirds of stuffing.
  11. Brush leg quarters with 1 teaspoon vegetable oil and arrange over the remaining stuffing. Lightly season legs and breasts with salt.
  12. Use your rubber spatula to tuck and exposed stuffing under the turkey, so that it is almost entire covered.
  13. Bake for 30 minutes at 425-degrees.
  14. At 2:30PM. Reduce oven to 350-degrees and continue cooking turkey for between 40 minutes and 2 hours.
  15. For the Gravy, empty the contents of pot through fine-mesh strainer set over a large bowl. Use the back of a spatula to press solids to render as much liquid as possible. Discard the solids. If you have more than 4 cups of liquid continue reducing until you have 4 cups. Empty the liquid into a fat separator. Allow to settle for at least 5 minutes (until Step 20)
  16. If your turkey is more than 16-to-17-pounds you will need to remove the stuffing before the turkey has fully cooked to prevent it from becoming too greasy. Put stuffing into an oven-safe pyrex casserole dish and continue baking until nicely browned. Also continue cooking turkey in the roasting pan on a v-rack.
  17. At 3:30PM to 4:30PM. Begin to check the internal temperature and remove when the breast registers 160 to 165 degrees and thighs reach 175 to 180 degrees; Remove each piece individually as each piece attains the proper temperature.  Set onto a cutting board and tent with aluminum foil.
  18. In my case, parts of the skin was not crispy. I broiled the leg quarts to crisp up the skin. Rotate turkey as necessary to crisp the entire skin.
  19. Allow turkey to rest for 30 minutes before carving. While turkey rests, use a spatula to stir stuffing and scrape up any browned bits. Evenly rearrange stuffing over the entire roasting pan and keep warm in the turned-off-oven.
  20. While the turkey continues to rest, finish making your gravy. Separate 1/4 cup of fat to medium saucepan. Put over medium-high burner and cook until bubbling. If you do not have 1/4 cup of reserved turkey fat, then supplement with unsalted butter. Whisk in 1/4 cup flour and cook for 2 minutes, constantly whisking, until it becomes honey-colored. Gradually whisk in hot turkey liquid and bring to boil. Reduce burner to medium-low and simmer for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until it has thickened. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper to taste.
  21. Remove skewers and twine from leg quarters. Carve turkey. Before serving stuffing, adjust seasoning with salt and pepper to taste. and arrange in center of large serving platter. Serve.
The breast also roasted up wonderfully moist.

The breast also roasted up wonderfully moist.

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2 Responses to Julia Child’s Deconstructed Thanksgiving

  1. This is a great recipe. I’ve made it for the last 3 years but your Thanksgiving guide was brilliant.

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